Text by Anil Chitrakar

In North America and Europe, children have been growing up with Hollywood versions of Spiderman, Batman and Superman. Those of us with a bit of grey hair remember them as comic book heroes. In south Asia, we have the ancient legendary hero - Hanuman. While the western heroes get their super powers from various sources, our very own Hanuman is able to fly because he is the son of wind (Pawan). He is therefore referred to as Pawan–putra Hanuman or Hanuman the son of wind. He is a monkey, gifted with super powers.

The statues of Hanuman, which are distinctly painted in orange, are found all over the Kathmandu valley. The most popular one lies at the entrance to the old Malla period palace of Kathmandu. No wonder then that the famous builder- king Pratap Malla in 1672, called his palace the ‘Hanuman Dhoka’ palace or the palace with Hanuman at the gate. There are similar images of Hanuman all over the valley, including those along the cremation ghats of the Bagmati and its tributaries. One unique aspect of Hanuman worship is that women are forbidden from performing rituals or even touching the image of Hanuman. I have not found any real good reason for this as yet.

During the satya yuga (truth eon) the hero of the Hindu epic Ramayan, Ram faced numerous challenges in keeping the ‘good side’ victorious. Hanuman is at his side during all his adventures through good times and bad times. The real crisis comes when Rawan, the ruler of Lanka (present day Sri Lanka) kidnaps Ram’s wife Sita and takes her away. Hanuman flies over the sea to find out Sita’s status and attempts to rescue her. He fails to negotiate her release and is captured. Rawan – the Lankan king decides to amuse himself by setting Hanuman’s tail on fire. Hanuman however, turns the joke on the king when he uses this “opportunity” to set the entire city on fire using his burning tail. He then flies back to Ram’s camp.

War is declared. Hanuman, along with a large army of monkeys, helps build a stone bridge from the southern tip of India to Lanka. One can see these “rocks” and many believe that it is the remains of the “bridge” that Ram and his army used to cross into Lanka to rescue Sita. In the war that ensues between Ram and Rawan, there are numerous casualties. Laxman, Ram’s brother, is critically injured and hangs on to his life. Everyone panics but the wise men of Ram’s camp suggest that there is a plant –Mritunjaya sanjibani, which literally means ‘life giving’ or ‘death overcoming’ plant and that this plant could save Laxman’s life. They also inform Ram that the plant is only found in the Himalaya, a long way from Lanka.

Once again it is Hanuman, gifted with the supernatural power of flying like Superman, who is called upon to help. Ram asks him to go forth without losing any time and bring back this plant. As requested, Hanuman arrives in the Himalaya and is greeted by its immense biodiversity. He is unable to identify the plant with the verbal description he was given in the battlefield. To save time, Hanuman decides to carry back an entire hill to Lanka in order to save Laxman’s life. The hill with the Mritunjaya sanjibani arrives on time and Laxman’s life is saved. Ram wins the battle and Sita in rescued.

What we do not know, but would like to know is if the mountain and the plants were ever returned to the Himalaya. The epic Ramayan and its various versions are not clear on what happened. We therefore need to make sure we get this hill back. Perhaps Nepal’s future prosperity depends on making wise-use of the ‘life giving’ plant.

Besides guarding the main entrance to the Hanuman Dhoka Palace, Hanuman is seen guarding the image of the tall statue of Shakyamuni Buddha at Swoyambhu and the Bagh Bhairab temple at Kirtipur. There are images of Hanuman on the struts at the temples at Panauti. There are also a number of Hanuman statues at Pashupati. In general, all Ram temples in the valley have images of Hanuman. One of the largest images of Hanuman can be found along the Bagmati river at Shankhamul Ghat, Patan. This was placed by Jagat Rana, one of the brothers of Jung Bahadur Rana in 1860.  The Hanuman outside the Patan Palace was placed by King Siddhi Narsingh Malla in 1647.

There are efforts being made by movie makers and cartoonists to make Hanuman as popular as Spiderman, Batman or Superman. He is a loveable and “good” character that the young and old easily fall in love with. When I went to buy a book on Hanuman, I was told that I should buy a movie on a CD ROM instead. Hanuman, it seems, is definitely going places.

Anil Chitrakar is a founding member of  Kathmandu 2020 and
has launched  Crafted in Kathmandu to help local artisans.
For comments e-mail: rosha@craftedinkathmandu.com